Stanford University’s Performance Dining program is turning the tables on dorm food with brain-boosting, performance-enhancing healthy meals. But you don’t need to go back to school to get an education in eating well; just follow these six steps. 

If you are what you eat, what does it mean to eat like a college student? Soggy pizza and microwave ramen are not exactly superfoods for growing brains and bodies. And it’s a rare campus cafeteria that doesn’t serve the occasional “mystery meat,” that dubious gray matter that looks like it’s been under heat lamps since the Truman administration. It’s almost an academic tradition: Bad food and college go together like instant mac ’n’ cheese.

In 2011, Stanford University did what institutions of higher learning do best. It rethought the entire process of how and what its students eat, giving special consideration to foods that taste great and help students perform at their mental and physical peak. The result is a program called Performance Dining @Stanford, developed in partnership with the athletic department, the Stanford School of Medicine, and the Culinary Institute of America. With emphasis on boosting brainpower, immunity, mood, and energy in the healthiest ways possible, Performance Dining is food for thought in the debate on how college students can eat smarter, and the program has the potential to change campus menus everywhere. 

Here’s a lesson plan for peak-performance dining.

1. Follow The Signs
Some foods feed your brain. Others move your muscles. A few do both and may even fight viruses and increase your happiness. Knowing your peas from your quinoa helps when it comes to getting the most from everyday eating, and that’s the basic idea behind Performance Dining. “If you know which foods improve concentration, let’s say, and which foods help muscles recover faster, you can choose the right foods or food combinations to eat when you need them,” says Eric Montell, executive director for Stanford Dining.

At Stanford’s Arrillaga Family Dining Commons, the gleaming new two-floor dining facility that hosts the Performance Dining program, colorful icons are posted at food stations and on LED monitors to highlight six main performance food categories. When Stanford students need a boost, they look for these signs:
  • A-O  Antioxidants: Foods that fight oxidation that may cause cellular damage from “free radicals,” or unstable molecules, in the body. “Colorful vegetables and fruits are your antioxidant go-tos,” Montell says.
  • E-I  Enhanced immunity: Nutrient-rich foods known to ward off colds, flus, and infections. “Think pulpy fresh-fruit juices and teas,” he says.
  • S-P Sports performance: Healthy carbs, lean proteins, and vitamins that fuel and repair active muscles. Stanford’s top picks: lean turkey, beans, grass-fed beef.
  • A-I  Anti-inflammatory components: Foods rich in omega-3s and other compounds thought to ease inflammation. Examples: canola oil, salmon, cage-free eggs, and walnuts.
  • B-P Brain performance: Plants, veggies, and compounds rich in tyrosine and believed to sharpen memory and focus. Lima beans are especially good for reasons you’ll discover on the next page.
  • Syn Synergy: Foods and ingredients that interact in ways that may improve health and well-being.
Some meals combine all six categories. Says Montell, “We have the Stanford football team hooked on a power scramble, which is made with 50/50 eggs (50 percent cage-free whole eggs and 50 percent egg whites), fresh organic spinach, sliced mushrooms, and fresh chopped tomatoes sautéed in extra-virgin olive oil.” Talk about the breakfast of champions!